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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

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Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Infrastructure and the Artificiality of Nations: The Internet, Balkan Crossings, and Border Radio

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 10, 2008

Over the last few years I have been involved part-time in the study of the origins and consequences of national identities and nation states.  Countries organized around homogeneous “peoples” united by common religions and languages and sharing common histories, destinies and exclusive title to geographic entities are artifices that came to the fore during the Romantic Age, that solidified during the 19th century, and occassioned wars and genocides in the 20th.

On the work front, I am now involved in a project to create an institute for the study of the history and future of infrastructure — especially the infrastructure of “connectivity” as manifested in the Internet.  Issues of internet infrastructure, national identity, and nation states overlap.   On the surface, the Internet appears to transcend geographic boundaries that delineate nation states and also has provided a platform for enabling individuals to shape their identities and live their lives according to self-defined clusters of interests and allegiances separate from the nationalities stamped on their passports. But, the cables and fibers that comprise the infrastructure on which the Internet rests remain divided and clustered according to national boundaries and regulated and controlled within the contexts of nation states — just as are water, energy, and telephony.

Balkan Crossings

The absurdities of dividing infrastructure — traditional and new — along nationally-defined lines becomes palpable as one moves from the centers of nation states to their edges.  I often travel by night train from Sofia in Bulgaria (once a part of the Soviet Bloc and now a member state of the European Union)  and Istanbul in Turkey (a country that, in its post-1923 incarnation, developed its economy and infrastructure largely on its own).  Trains in both directions between Sofia and Istanbul approach the Bulgarian-Turkish border at 3 a.m.  State-railway-owned electric locomotives are removed from the trains just before they enter the infrastructure-less strip of no-man’s land that parallels the border itself. The trains are then shuttled from one country to the other by jointly-maintained diesel-powered locomotives. Passengers’ passports and baggage are checked once at the Bulgarian checkpoint and again on the Turkish side.  The glowing lights of towns visible from stations on both sides of the border are lit by separate nationally-defined power grids and their residents drink from separate nationally-defined water supply systems.  Telephoning or checking email from the border can be shockingly expensive, a glance at the screen of one’s mobile phone shows that signals switch back-and-forth between those of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek service providers (Greece’s northeastern border with Bulgaria and Turkey is only a few kilometers away).

Border Radio

Last month, US National Public Radio’s On the Media program broadcast The X Factor, a piece on the history and phenomenon of Border Radio.  Border Radio refers to the radio stations whose immense towers sprouted on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border during the 1920s and 1930s.  Most of these stations were “fugitives” on the run from US broadcasting and truth-in-advertising regulations and were welcome in regulation-free Mexico in part due to the revenues they produced.  The first of the Border Stations was set up by a patent medicine peddling Kansan with an MD degree from a diploma mill in Chicago and a thriving practice in curing male impotence through goat gonad transplant operations. The station was established as the doctor’s own proprietary advertising and marketing device for gonad transplants and associated medicines but soon became a thriving business in its own right.

As more such stations were founded, other flamboyant figures flocked to Border Radio including faith healing preachers who talked in tongues and announcers who moved beds into their broadcasting booths so they could have sex while speaking on the air.  More profoundly, as Border Radio grew it came to reflect the mood and tastes of the American heartland.  East and West Coast based  mainstream radio with its big-band music, movie-star guests, and limp comedies and soap-operas fared well in New York and Los Angeles but the rural states of the former Confederacy and the dust-bowl stricken plains needed a voice of their own.

From its physical location just outside of the US, Border Radio came to mirror rural America and also to reshape it.  Border Radio played a role in solidified and promoting commercial country music and, through the legendary Brooklyn-born disk-jockey The Wolfman, spread rock ‘n roll through the American heartland.  On the political front, Border Radio’s religious programs brought the worldview of rural pentecostal Christianity into the age of broadcasting, feeding the creation of what ultimately became America’s powerful religious right.

Central to the influence of Border Radio was its infrastructure– million-watt clear-channel frequencies whose waves were said to be strong enough to fry flocks of birds in mid-flight and whose signals not only blanketed  America’s heartland but also caromed off the stratosphere to listeners in the South Pacific and in KGB listening posts in Moscow.  Like the Internet, national boundaries were superfluous to Border Radio and, also like the internet, by creating an alternative to the mainstream of its time, Border Radio shaped a new mainstream in its own image.

More on this theme in subsequent entries …

Posted in Bulgaria, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, National Identity, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Links: Confused of Calcutta Considers YouTube; Brian Lehrer Interviews “Internets Celebrities”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 12, 2008

On Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami writes of an upcoming lecture on the anthropology of YouTube and muses on YouTube’s volume of programming having surpassed that of network television. JP’s words lead me to refer again to the work of my favorite YouTube contributors, the self-created “Internets Celebrities” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (for links to their blogs and their films go to the next-to-last paragraph of my post of May 25). The Internets Celebrities’s combination of humor and economic and social insight have created a new genre of commentary-meets-comedy-meets-NYC-street-sensibilities and of making young (and old — witness this writer) people aware of the workings of the systems and situations in which they live — this while bypassing television broadcasting and movie-houses. Via YouTube, each of the Internets Celebrities short videos have logged up to 1,000,000 views each. For insight into what they’ve done, how they do it, and the place of YouTube in the process, view this recent broadcast (“Ghetto Economics”) on New York’s Brian Lehrer Live.

Posted in Communications, Economy, Internet, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

Posted in Books, History, Language, Links, Popular Culture, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Perception Trumps Reality: “Getting It,” Spin, Branding, and Reputation Management

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 30, 2007

I smiled when I read Dean Landsman’s recent short post on “Who Gets What?” Phrases such as “he gets it” or “you just don’t get it” seem to be a new refuge for people who cannot explain what they mean or who push partially-formed ideas. The thrust: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s your fault not mine.” And, thanks, Dean, for coining the word “Get-itude.”

Low on “Get-itude”

It is no coincidence that “getting it” peppers the speech of supporters of the Bush administration and its policies. Like many other ordinary people who had devoted some time to reading Middle Eastern history or who had worked or traveled in the region, I was opposed to the Iraq War from the start and quite easily foresaw the chaos, destruction, and human and financial calamities the war would bring to Iraq, the entire Middle East, and the economy and world standing of the US. Back in 2003, some months into the war, I ran into an acquaintance who is a senior US diplomat. When I told him I was against the war he replied that he supported it and ended our conversation with a smug: “You just don’t get it, do you?” No arguments, no facts, no persuasion, just a few condescending words of dismissal.

“Getting It,” John Calvin, and the Revival Tent

The rise of “getting it” is symptomatic of the conflation of politics, discourse, and fundamentalist religion in the US over the past three decades. Partisans divide the world into those who “get it” and those who don’t with a self-satisfaction not unlike that of Calvinists who assumed themselves to be amongst the “elect” or the “saved” and others amongst the damned. Epistemologically, “getting it” conjures up nineteenth-century revival tents, fictional Elmer Gantrys, and real-life Amy Sempel McPhersons. “Getting” or “not getting” implies that knowledge is revealed and that belief, conversion, prophetic vision and the ineffable are more important than understanding or dialogue. Saint Augustine, by the way, wrote that faith precedes understanding; he never wrote that faith replaces it.

From Snake Oil to Soft Focus to Spin

19th-century country-fair hucksterism entered the American mainstream long-ago, as did the unreality of Hollywood. In the realm of public affairs this meant, in essence: Don’t change what is, tinker with perceptions instead!

During the 1970s, I was a graduate student and researcher in public policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research (today the Milano Center). The Center and its students were dedicated to reality and to change — be it shepherding New York City into economic revival and fiscal stability or, as Lower East Side leftist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) once put it, to make New York “… into a garden for the human spirit.” In fact, it was one of our fellow graduates — Alan Brouwer, if I remember correctly — whose discovery and analysis of the misuse of New York’s capital budget to cover deficits in its expense budget first brought to the public eye the City’s legendary impending bankruptcy.

The 1970s, however, also saw the rise of the word “Spin” (as in political PR, not as in the French acronym for AIDS) and the associated appearance of professional (Gott hilf uns!) “Spinmeisters.” In the end, Spin won out over policy analysis and set a method and tone that are with us until today, with the discredited Bush administration still pushing fairy-tales of victory in Iraq and economic growth in America in the face of patent disasters on both fronts.

By the way, for a passionate take on politics in the days when government meant providing real solutions to real problems, read John Updike’s cautionary comments on revisionist takes on FDR and the New Deal in this week’s New Yorker. Also, for a powerful analysis of the use of spin by the Bush administration to fabricate grounds and conjure up support for the war in Iraq — and for the sad tale of the gullibility and connivance of much of the US press in the face of such heavy-handed cynicism and betrayal of the public trust — watch this recent broadcast from Bill Moyers (also available as a podcast).

Branding vs. Content

The ultimate substitution of perception for reality was “branding,” the private-sector equivalent of spin. The concept of branding was simple: to create differing images for products and organizations between which there were no real differences at all. I had the dubious fortune of being present at what may have been the birth of modern branding. This occurred during the so-called “accountancy wars” of the 1980s when the internationalism of business and the rise of uniform auditing and reporting requirements in the European Community led US “Big Eight” accountancy practices to build multinational partnerships and to seek to differentiate themselves through advertising, something that accountants (and doctors, lawyers, and engineers too) once considered a crass betrayal of professionalism.

In fact, there were no differences between any of the top accounting companies at the time. Partners and clients jumped from one company to another and international member firms switched alliances regularly. A Peat Marwick audit was little different from an Arthur Anderson audit, just as Price Waterhouse tax advice was the same as advice from Grant Thornton. The only real differences were in personal relationships and the prices and approaches to specific engagements. But, in the end, accountancy firms squandered fortunes trying to create the same ephemeral advertising-based identities as brands of soap and cigarettes. Sour grapes on my part? Maybe. At the time I was a “hired-gun” proposals-management specialist for KMG (the European-based ancestor of present-day KPMG) charged with crafting real, project-based, individualized responses to actual needs of clients operating in specific real world environments — a task and approach irrelevant to branding and to identities based on manipulation of perception.

Reputation Management: Flim-Flam or Foundation for Change?

For the last several years, I’d kept a distance from the world of marketing communications and PR. As a result, my shock was all the greater when I recently became aware of the new game of “Reputation Management” — branding and spin tidily spruced-up and repackaged under a new name. Reputation Management has all the pitfalls of its predecessors, i.e. a focus on manipulation of perception rather than on development and improvement of products and services. But … maybe the idea of Reputation Management is not completely a sham after all. Maybe reputations could be created and managed in ways other than spinning and branding. My own approach might sound a bit medieval and redolent of craftsmanship and guilds, i.e. to provide goods and services of the highest quality and to gear them to what customers actually require and demand. Doing so would require that companies, institutions, and governments make a 180° shift in their approach to communications, i.e. to be willing to be party to communication from without as much or more as the communicate from within.  The challenge: To carefully and accurately listen to and articulate the wishes and needs of the individuals that comprise the market place and to form missions and strategies, develop and implement products and services, and shape, staff and motivate organizations accordingly. Doing so just might do away with the need to manipulate and in the end might create reputations far more powerful than those based on perception alone.

Footnote and disclaimer: Could my irritation at some of the glib phrases mentioned in this post partly be a function of my advancing age? Maybe. I’ll admit that I’m old enough to associate “cool” with early Miles Davis and to describe some of the things I like best as being, well … “Boss”!!!

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Singing Cowboy and Early-Adopter, Movie Idol and Media Mogul

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 8, 2007

Singing cowboy Gene Autry was an icon of the early years of commercial country music, 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood, and the so-called “golden ages” of radio and of television. But Autry was also an entrepreneur with a keen eye for new media, even before their business models became clear. An early investor in television broadcasting, what would Autry have made of the internet? For Autry’s life story, interspersed with excerpts from his songs and a film soundtrack lament for his dying horse “Champion,” go to the May 1st edition of WNYC New York’s Soundcheck. For those interested in the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll, I’d also recommend recent Soundcheck broadcasts on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the cross-over gospel and R&B vocal and electric guitar great who inspired Elvis Presley, and Doc Pomus, a New York Jewish kid invalided with polio who was a popular blues musician amongst black audiences in Brooklyn during the 1940s and who went on to become one of the famed pop music writers at the Brill building on Broadway in the early-1960s. Finally, to bring us back full circle to the realm of tech innovation, do listen to Sara Fishko’s recent broadcast about the Theremin, the Science-Fiction-like musical instrument that was a creation of 1920s Soviet science and later gave mid-twentieth-century American Sci-Fi movies their characteristically Sci-Fi sound.

Posted in Innovation, Media, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »